How to make a healthy picnic for kids

lunchbox_appleWith the days getting warmer, we’ve started having more days out – and this means picnic lunches. I love the way they’re a budget-friendly option for eating a tasty meal together, removing the need to stand in a queue or throw away sandwiches that you’ve forked out for. Once your kids have picked out the bits they liked, of course.

I also give my children packed lunchboxes during the week too. On Fridays, my eldest two eat a packed lunch at school, and one evening a week, they have a packed dinner because gymnastics class runs late.

What we eat on a picnic

I often serve up a wholemeal or multigrain wrap with hummus and grated carrot. This is one of our favourite healthy fillings at the moment (with not a slice of ham in sight. Try reading my blog post: Is it time to ditch your child’s lunchbox ham sandwich). It also helps a pot of hummus to stretch further. Simply peel and grate two carrots, and then add a tablespoon or two of hummus and mix. Spread on the wrap.

(My fussy two-year-old refuses this of course. He prefers cream cheese fillings for his sandwiches, though we’re still working on him.)

I also sometimes prepare couscous salad with cubed cheese, cucumber, peas and sweetcorn, mixed with a little olive oil.

 

raw vegetables for a picnic2

There are always carrot and cucumber sticks, often pepper, sometimes a little pot of hummus for dipping, fruit and cubes of cheese.

 

 

 

 

 

So far so good, but I also offer the kids foods that I’m more uneasy about – like squeezy yoghurt or those cheese dip bread sticks – just because they’re so convenient.

I would really like some more ideas for serving up a healthy lunchbox, while making the meal interesting and tasty too.

With this in mind, I asked two children’s food experts for their thoughts on healthy picnics and lunchboxes for kids – and then we gave some of the tips a whirl over the Easter weekend:

1. THINK BEYOND THE SANDWICH

Vary the breads, for example pitta, wraps and different grains, try offering a cheese scone, rice or couscous salad or even rice cakes or crackers. “Crackers are a fun alternative, and if you serve it with some kind of protein source like cheese to go with it, that should fill them up,” says registered paediatric dietitian Paula Hallam.

Tried and tested: This is always a popular snack with my kids, so it went down well.

2. PASTA SALADS

“I mix pasta and pesto with some olives, and grate cheese into it,” says Dr Frankie Phillips, a dietitian specialising in children’s food and a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

 Paula gives her children tuna pasta mixed with a tiny bit of mayonnaise plus sweetcorn and/ or apple. “It sounds weird having the sweet apple with it, but it does go nicely together,” she says.

Tried and tested: The tuna pasta salad sounded like a great way to get more fish into my children, so I made this for our picnic at the weekend, mixing some Greek yoghurt in too to make the mayonnaise go further.

tuna pasta salad with apple and sweetcorn2

 

It was popular with the two kids who tried it, though they were wary of having the apple in the mix. But the grown-ups loved it. Would definitely serve this again.

 

 

 

 

3. RAW VEG AND FRUIT

Don’t forget to chop up some carrot, cucumbers, raw peppers, celery and any other veg that your child will crunch on.

If you have time, Paula suggests making a fun fruit kebab. “Try skewering fruit, like melon, on to a cocktail stick,” she says. “You can always chop off the end if it’s too sharp.”

Tried and tested: We’re big fans of chopped veg at picnics, so added pepper to the mix too. We managed to empty the box.

4.    YOGHURT

Yoghurt makes a great pudding for a picnic, and Paula recommends occasionally offering a bowl of natural yoghurt with chopped fresh or dried fruit to stir in.

But yoghurt can be hard to eat without a table and of course you’ve got to remember to pack spoons. This is where those super-handy squeezy yoghurts and tubes come in. But watch out – they can be very high in sugar.

“In the nutritional label of dairy products, sugar is listed under ‘carbohydrate, of which sugars’,” says Paula. “But this figure will seem confusingly high as it actually includes milk’s natural sugar, called lactose, which we know isn’t bad for your health.

“So for a more accurate picture, refer to the ingredients instead, which are listed in order of quantity. Avoid a yoghurt in which ‘sugar’ is named in the top two ingredients as it’s likely to be quite high in added sugar.

“Some don’t contain any added sugar, just fruit purée. This is great as it’s not just empty sugar, but offers extra nutrients too.”

Tried and tested: It was a struggle, but I did manage to find a squeezy tube which contained less sugar. But I don’t understand why you can get sugar-free yoghurts in pots, but not in tubes, which are aimed at children. Next time, I’m going to try the natural yoghurt and fruit plan.

5.     DRIED FRUIT

Raisins and other dried fruit stick to the teeth, so aren’t good for your child’s dental health, says Dr Phillips. “But if you serve them up as part of a meal, it’s okay. Ideally offer some chunks of cheese to eat afterwards to neutralise the effects of the sugar in the raisins.”

Tried and tested: Raisins and cheese. A winning combination as far as my kids are concerned.

6.     CRISPS AND BISCUITS

Try keeping crisps and biscuits as a treat for a family picnic at the weekends rather than having them as a daily lunchbox expectation.

“It’s all about getting the most opportunities for better nutrition in the packed lunch,” says Dr Phillips. “Foods like biscuits and chocolate bars and crisps are not inherently bad food but by including them every day, you don’t have the opportunity to include other foods which give a greater range of nutrients.

“At the end of the day, you’ll get more nutrients from something like a flapjack bar, containing chopped nuts and apricots, than you would from a chocolate bar.”

Tried and tested: For a family picnic, my kids have a small packet of crisps but I don’t put them in their lunchboxes during the week.

7.  DIPS AND PÂTÉS

Kids love dips, so try offering hummus with fruit, veg and bread sticks for dipping, says Paula. “If you’re going to serve the cheese dipper-style pots, look out for the ones with bread sticks, rather than the ones with crisps.”

She also suggests making mackerel pâté as a spread for crackers and a great way to serve up oily fish. “Blending it with cream cheese can make the strong flavours more palatable to kids,” she says.

Tried and tested: I avoided the cheese spread dippers and instead made the pâté for the picnic, hoping my kids would like it.

But while it was really popular with the four adults present, it was less successful with the children. Two out of the five kids at the picnic tried it, and of this pair, neither seemed particularly keen. But I’m hoping that if I serve this more regularly, the kids will get used to seeing it at picnics and might have another try. I’ll also add more cream cheese next time to produce a milder taste.

Here’s Jamie Oliver’s recipe, with a few tweaks:

 Smoked mackerel pâté

smoked mackerel pate2

One 250g pack of smoked mackerel
100g cream cheese
½ lemon, zested and juiced
A small handful of parsley, chopped

Take the skin off the mackerel, break it into chunks and then pop the fish into a food processor. Add the cream cheese, lemon and parsley and blend to a smooth pâté. Taste and season as you think necessary.

 

NJC - LogoJunk-food free challenge

I try to avoid serving junk food to my children but the odd thing does creep in – particularly at a family picnic. Crisps, anyone?

This is why I’ve decided to get behind Organix, which is launching the No Junk campaign. As the name suggests, it’s all about healthy food – and healthy children.

As parents, we’re all worried about the amount of salt, fat, sugar and artificial additives in our kids’ foods, and Organix is calling on the government and food industry to introduce tough controls.

I’ll be making sure my family go junk-food free for seven days – and then blogging about our  experiences next week.

And I’ve already signed the online pledge: ‘I pledge to eat and feed my family only real ingredients I can recognise or spell.’

The campaign runs from 28 April to 7 May, but you can join in now and sign the pledge too: www.organix.com/nojunk

 

apple illustrationI’m Carole Beck, a journalist and mum of three small children (aged seven, five and two), and I have long tried to live a healthy lifestyle, but I’m not always successful. This blog follows my trials and tribulations as I try to boost mine and my family’s fitness, sharing some of the bumps and cracks that I’ve walked into along the way. Feel free to have a look around the blog and let me know what you think. Do follow me on Twitter too.

 

 
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Some great suggestions – Hummous is a favourite here too for packed lunches x x

kara says:

This looks delicious – i quite fancy it for myself

anna says:

Great ideas! I need to work on being more organised to take picnics out with us as often when you buy food out its all the more unhealthy options which are easily available

abigail says:

Some really great ideas here! We went gluten free at the beginning of the year, and one of the things I was worried about was the summer picnics, but there are lots of great alternatives to sandwiches!

lisa prince says:

love the summer when packed lunches are being made more, we go out for days out and always ensure we have plenty with us x

I love the sound of this campaign and it is something I truly believe in. Lovely yummy pack up ideas x

Pinkoddy says:

You are good. I didn’t think mayonnaise was that healthy though?

healthiermummy says:

I think it’s okay in small doses. But obviously it would be better to make it yourself.

Kizzy says:

We’ve signed the pledge and love tuna pasta and mackerel pate!

Sarah Bailey says:

Tuna pasta salad sounds delicious – I should really start making myself some I think :) x

Eileen Teo says:

lovely ideas! will give them a try and also feed my husband too!

Some good picnic ideas here.I have seen those cute bento meals that are getting popular now too.

clare says:

Thanks for these ideas – there are some great ones here. We love salads on a picnic!

My daughter has cous cous every day in her packed lunch: she’s a creature of habit! I’m going to see if she’ll go for any of your suggestions.

healthiermummy says:

My eldest daughter loves couscous for her packed lunch too!

Great ideas and I thoroughly enjoyed reading as I am desperately trying to encourage my son to eat a better range of foods. He has autism and the food situation is a nightmare as all he wants to eat is about 4 items total , ever. He shocked us this week though as I made homemade guacamole and he tucked into it!

healthiermummy says:

Good luck with your son. My youngest is a fussy eater too. I haven’t tried guacamole with my kids, thanks for the tip.

Kirsty says:

Chopped apricots are big here as they also contain iron which is something I need lots of in my diet. We also love banana and raisin muffins, strawberry, blueberry and pineapple kebabs and pitta bread with chicken satay skewers. I admit that eating healthily takes more thought than a cheese sandwich but it isn’t too difficult when you get in the habit.

healthiermummy says:

All tasty ideas, thanks, Kirsty. Will give them a try.

Mummy of Two says:

Some great suggestions there. We are always a bit naughty when it comes to picnics and have lots of easy, treat foods!

Jenny says:

My children (2 and 4) are always asking to try pate when we grown ups have it. Sounds like I should be making them some mackerel pate of their own!

healthiermummy says:

Yes, give it a try!

Emily says:

Some great suggestions which I shall be trying with my family.

Really useful information, thanks for sharing x

Michelle says:

Really fab suggestions for healthier lunch boxes – and not just for the kids too – I love the sound of some of these ideas x

Bex Smith says:

Some great suggestions! I always struggle with my little boy as I don’t want to give him the same or similar things day in, day out

Anna J says:

Great suggestions- I always struggle to find interesting, healthy food on a budget. Or when in a rush to get out the house.